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Better Than Beach Reading: A Linux Starter Kit

Better Than Beach Reading: A Linux Starter Kit

Summer may be a time for some to lie in the hammock with a margarita, but if your inner geek is whispering "is that all there is?" over and over again, you might be ripe for a project. How about making that shift to Linux you've been dreaming about? It's fun, it's cool and -- believe us -- it's not that hard.

By Katherine Noyes
08/04/08 4:00 AM PT

Ah, August. It's the beginning of the end of summer, and the time when we must all start shaking the sand out of our ears once more. The real world wants us back!

Activity on the Linux blogs was understandably light last week, with some of the most notable discussions focusing on the release of KDE 4.1 (generating a fair buzz on Slashdot) and -- somewhat more curiously -- the state of Lindependence 2008, which brought forth a lively Microsoft vs. The World debate on LXer.

We may revisit the Lindependence topic another day -- it's just too good to pass up -- but for this week, we here at LinuxInsider felt it our duty to help those who are fed up with Redmond to find their way to Linux. This is August -- a month of transition and new beginnings, after all -- so what better time for geeks who have been lost on the dark side to come over to the Light that is Linux?

Read on, then, for a starter kit, of sorts, that will show the way to Linuxy salvation ...

Best Ways to Learn Linux

We begin with a post from a few weeks ago on Foogazi entitled "The Best Way to Learn Linux." Need we say more? The article picks up on another post on essentially the same topic by Dan Craciun, and offers several thoughts and suggestions on becoming one of the initiated.

"The key is to know how and what resources to utilize to gather the best information," Adam Kane, Foogazi blogger and author of the piece, told LinuxInsider. "New users should know that there is a great community of Linux users that are willingly dedicated to helping people with technical problems for absolutely nothing, and those resources are available in a few different ways: forums, IRC chat rooms, mailing lists, local Linux user groups, and a plethora of Web sites dedicated to providing the community with Linux how-tos."

Other helpful resources from Foogazi's Kane are two separate posts from a while back listing "20 Must Read How-Tos and Guides for Linux" and "The Best Linux Web Resources," as well as "10 Linux Books You Must Own" and "Linux Vocabulary for the New Linux User," both from earlier this year.

Thank you, Mr. Kane, for your service to the next geek generation!

Start with Repositories ...

Then, of course, there's the Learn Linux site, Linux Reviews' tutorial for beginners and Linux.org's online tutorials, among many other helpful sources of education.

Rather than simply present a laundry list of what's available out there, however, LinuxInsider wanted to see what real, live working Linux geeks had to say on the topic. So we asked them, What would you put in a Linux starter kit?

"If I had to write a Linux Starter's Kit, it would be along these lines," said Slashdot blogger Mhall119, who has actually submitted a blueprint to Ubuntu on a related topic. (See the blueprint and the spec.)

Repositories would be first on Mhall119's list of what to include in a starter kit, he told LinuxInsider.

"Windows users switching to Linux need to understand Packages and Repositories," Mhall119 explained. "Repositories, whether APT or YUM, are the Killer App for Linux -- they provide the greatest single advantage over Windows from an end-user perspective."

One of the first stumbling blocks new Linux users run into is installing new software, "but in reality, installing Linux software -- especially if it's in your repositories -- is one of the easiest things you can do," Mhall119 added. "I recently read comments about someone who gave up on Linux because they couldn't install 'Family Tree Maker' when a perfectly good alternative -- Gramps -- was only an apt-get away."

Make It Your Own

Next on Mhall119's list? "Customization: New Linux users should be encouraged to customize their desktop," he said. " Not only will this show off the power of Gnome, KDE, Xfce compared to Windows, but it will get the user accustomed to the idea that they can -- and should -- make changes to their computer, to make it look and feel and act the way they want it to. Every time I see a default Ubuntu desktop, I see a failure to teach someone about Linux."

While Kane suggests introducing new users to the command line before the GUI (graphical user interface), "I think this is a big mistake," Mhall119 asserted. "Windows users are afraid of the command line, and rightfully so -- it's a scary place in Windows. If they think that they need the command line in Linux, then Linux will scare them."

Instead, "I think they should be exposed to the terminal, told what the command line equivalent is of any GUI action a GUI-focused how-to or help guide tells them to do, and again encourage them to play around in it," he added.

Fourth on Mhall119's list is Philosophy: "Making software free is what makes it work for them, so it is important that they understand it" -- while Community comes in at No. 5. "Once the users understand the philosophy of open source, they can understand the open source community -- and why support forums are often better than an 800 number," he said.

Community, Community

Indeed, making full use of the community was a common theme mentioned by the Linux bloggers we spoke to.

"I think, by far, the easiest way to learn Linux is to get together with others who know how to use Linux," Gerhard Mack, a Montreal-based consultant and Slashdot blogger, told LinuxInsider. "After the user is started, it's much easier to use help pages to get the rest of the way."

Like Foogazi's Kane, others emphasized the importance of reading the many printed resources out there.

"Install, read, install, read some more!" Slashdot blogger Yagu told LinuxInsider. "Seriously, if one is technical and wants to learn Linux, I recommend buying one of many Linux magazines -- they almost always have some distro CD with them in the stores. Then, find an old machine around the house and install Linux."

Buy some books: "I tend to favor the O'Reilly books -- consider starting with Linux in a Nutshell," advised Yagu. (Yagu, also known as Elbert Hannah, is coauthor of the O'Reilly book, Learning the vi and Vim Editors.)

Play Around

Next, "copious use of cd, ls, vi, cat and man," Yagu said. "Start in the /etc directory. Look at files ending in .conf, .cfg, .rc. Look in the directory /etc/rc.d/init. Look at the startup scripts. Look in /sbin and do man xxx on commands found there -- those are sysadmin commands -- you'll learn about how to manage the system. Also look in /usr/sbin for some less pedantic admin commands."

Finally, "start ls-ing in /bin, /usr/bin and /usr/local/bin. Do man xxx on anything that piques your curiosity," Yagu advised. "If by now your curiosity isn't piqued, STOP -- you're not interested in Linux."

On the other hand: "If this got you started, I apologize in advance for taking up the next few years of your life," quipped Yagu.

Mother of Invention

"The first thing you need when learning Linux is a solution," Kevin Dean, a blogger on Monochrome Mentality, told LinuxInsider. "For me, Windows was bloated, and the switch to Linux served a purpose. Need has a great way of being a learning aid; there's a lot of incentive to learn a new operating system when your choices are 'learn a new operating system' or 'stop using computers.'"

While books are essential -- particularly O'Reilly's Running Linux and Robin Miller's Point and Click Linux -- "I'd say the best way for a new user to get familiar with Linux is to play with -- or install, if a hard drive's free -- one of the many excellent Live CDs available," Slashdot editor Timothy Lord told LinuxInsider. "There's a good list [sponsored by FrozenTech], and lately, I favor Linux Mint, which draws heavily from Ubuntu Linux."

Like Ice Cream

So there, dear readers, you have a mountain of suggestions for how to learn Linux. But is it really a matter of learning the operating system all that thoroughly? Dean isn't so sure.

"Today, you don't need to 'learn' Linux," he asserted. "You no longer need to understand your system to pick which distro would work the best, since just about every distro works the same. Today's installers will not only set up a working system but actually migrate your settings from your former operating system so that you don't really even need to configure it."

What today's users are presented with is choice, Dean added.

"Back in the day, obtaining ice cream was a bit harder," he concluded. "You made a decision on what flavor you wanted, gathered the ingredients for that flavor, made the ice cream, and picked how you wanted to serve it.

"Today," on the other hand, "you just need to tell the guy at Baskin Robins what flavor you want and then actually eat it," he said. "Linux is very much the same today."


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